Month: February 2018

A Love Story by Émile Zola

Posted February 15, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

A Love Story by Émile ZolaTitle: A Love Story (Goodreads)
Author: Émile Zola
Translator: Helen Constantine
Series: Les Rougon-Macquart #8
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 1877
Pages: 272
Genres: Classic
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Une page d’amour starts off with Hélène Grandjean’s daughter Jeanne falling violently ill. What follows is the story of Hélène, an attractive young widow trying to care for her daughter and hide her secret love affair with Dr Henri Deberle. This is the eighth book in Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), which really sums up what you can expect from the twenty novels found in the series.

This novel kicked off in a manner that really set the tone and pace but still allows Zola to impress the reader with his elegant style. Normally I find with older classics that they adopt a leisurelier pace but A Love Story was not a slow burn. I was very impressed with the way Émile Zola was able to keep that pace, while I sat in awe of the writing style. Most people know this French writer for Thérèse Raquin and I must admit that I picked A Love Story before knowing it was the eighth book in the series.

The twenty books in Les Rougon-Macquart series covers all aspects of life through the Second French Empire. This is the Imperial regime of Napoleon Bonaparte which took place from 1852 to 1870 (between the second and third French republics but that is too much of a history lesson). Zola wanted to explore French life and these books are often a social critique of the time. The end results is what is considered the most notable books in the French naturalism literary movement.

I will admit that I expected A Love Story to be social criticism, I even went in as viewing through a Marxist lens because the novel was set among the petite bourgeoisie. However I quickly discovered that this novel focused on the psychology of Hélène Grandjean, in particular the differences between love and marriage, as well as motherhood and duty. This was an intense look at a woman who discovered that she was never truly been in love. Her intense relationship with Dr Henri Deberle almost served as a sexual awakening. However the circumstances surrounding their relationship and lives leads the novel to its inevitable conclusion.

A Love Story was such a joy to read, however I do regret not starting elsewhere. There will be plenty more Émile Zola novels in my future, especially since I know that he often focuses on social criticism. I have Thérèse Raquin on my shelves, so I am sure it will happen soon but I suspect La Fortune des Rougon will happen in the near future as well. My love for French literature grows with every book I read, though it will never replace my Russian lit obsession. This is the type of book I would like to leisurely read while sitting in a Paris café, maybe that is how I will re-read A Love Story.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Posted February 12, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Lincoln in the Bardo by George SaundersTitle: Lincoln in the Bardo (Goodreads)
Author: George Saunders
Published: Bloomsbury, 2017
Pages: 343
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

George Saunders’ long awaited debut novel has been surrounded by hype, and winning the Man Booker prize only helped to launch this book. Saunders is probably best known for his short stories that often share a vibe similar to the television show Black Mirror. I even called his last collection Tenth of December “contemporary witty, with an element of darkness”. Even comparing it to two other great collections that were released about the same time, Black Vodka by Deborah Levy and Revenge by Yōko Ogawa. Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Civil War has been raging for almost a year while the President’s eleven year old son lies in bed gravely ill. Despite the predictions of a full recovery, Willie dies and his body is laid to read in a Georgetown cemetery.

Blending historical data collected while researching this novel, George Saunders blends in a narrative of the afterlife and grief. While the title suggest that Willie Lincoln is in the bardo, the narrative seems to fit more with purgatory. In some schools of Buddhism, bardo is known as the state of existence between death and rebirth, while purgatory is a state of purification before heading to heaven. This distinction is interesting as the characters in this limbo often are unwilling to let go of their physical remains and complete their journey into the afterlife. These characters are often faced with deformities representative of their mortal failures. Saunders does consider himself a student of Nyingma Buddhism but my understanding of theology is primarily Christian, so I tend to interpret the writing with that thought in mind.

The other part of this novel is set around the President and his family as they grieve the loss of Willie. It is here we see a lot of the historical documentation come into play. This includes excerpts from newspapers and biographies. This serves to drive the narrative of grief but also highlights the inconsistencies found in history. What made this book so appealing was the confliction in Abraham Lincoln. While grieving the loss of his own son, he was still responsible for the loss of so many others because of the Civil War. While the American Civil war may have led to many good things, the effects of war were truly felt throughout Lincoln in the Bardo.

The novel is told through different speeches; a narrative that closely resembles a play. This is what makes the audiobook such an alluring option. The publisher put a lot of effort in producing, with a cast of 166 voice actors, including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, Susan Sarandon and George Saunders. I was worried that between the narrative style and the large cast, this would be too much of a gimmick but I think Saunders and the audiobook production managed to never go overboard. However I can understand why this would not work for some readers.

The end result of Lincoln in the Bardo was a dark comedy, ghost story and while I was a little worried (because of all the hype) I am glad my book club made me read this novel. At the moment I prefer George Saunders’ short stories but I can only compare Lincoln in the Bardo with Tenth of December. It does make me curious to try CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia. I know in the future Saunders will continue to be surrounded by hype but I am still interested to see what is next for this author.

Distracted by Other Books

Posted February 1, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 6 Comments

My Thoughts and Reading in January 2018

When midnight came around to usher in 2018 my first instinct (after celebrating with my wife) was to start reading. I had decided to go into the New Year with no reading goals and no long term plans except to enjoy my reading journey. I love the feeling you get at the beginning of the year where you are ready to achieve but I often find that feeling fades far too quickly. I wanted to see what it would be like to just read and have no reading goals, but here I am celebrating with friends and I just want to be reading.

I went into the year with two books on the go, The Devotion of Suspect X and Suburra. I know many people that will abandon the books and start fresh at the beginning of the year, but I am terrible at abandoning, especially if I am enjoying the books. The whole idea seems nice, in theory. Being distracted by other books is a constant struggle, especially at the beginning of the year.

I was given two books to read for book club over the Christmas break. We were unable to decide which to read and since we do not return till February, we had the time. One of the picks was Lincoln in the Bardo. I was excited for George Saunders’ first novel but since the release I think my interest in reading it died significantly. All the hype around the novel put me off reading it for a long time, but I was still curious. I enjoyed Tenth of December, so I wanted to dip into his writing further.

I ended up getting the audio book and had a wonderful time. The cast of a hundred narrators really worked for Lincoln in the Bardo. I did worry that it would end up being too much of a gimmick, Saunders managed to work with the unique style without going overboard. In the end, the conflict Lincoln had between grieving his son and knowingly sending sons, brothers and fathers to die in a civil war was what stood out. I will be interested to see where Saunders goes from here but I personally prefer his short stories; if I am only judging him based on Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December.

The other book club book was Extinctions, which won the Miles Franklin award. So we ended up reading the Man Booker prize and the Miles Franklin, which is an Australian literary award. I started going to book club in 2012 as a way to push myself. For someone that is so introverted I am often surprised that the steps I take to interact with other people. In the five years attending book club I have been the only male to frequently attend and I tend to hate everything the club loves. If only I could learn to articulate my words better, we could have much better discussions. Then again, I go to practise. If it was not for the book club I may have never read books like The Dinner, Tigers in Red Weather, The Yellow Birds or Sweetland.

It is interesting to see how much the world around me influences my reading, my book club has pushed me to read many books I might not think to pick up but it is hard to say if I would discover them another way. I tend to spend a lot of time on social media with bookish people, from Twitter to GoodReads, from YouTube to blogs. Reading does not have to be a solitary act anymore and I love how easy it is to find people to discuss books with. We may all get distracted by literary prizes and the next over-hyped books but it is the people constantly discussing books that influence me the most.

These are the people that inspired me to try BookTube, another way to push myself and practise articulating my thoughts on what I have been reading. However, I prefer to consider myself a writer or blogger and my major goal for the year is to get back into the habit. I use to review every book I read and while this no longer seems practical, I want to write more. Between my blog and The Literati, my goal is more content; not necessarily reviews, rather I would like to focus on the personal essay. When I was a teenager I thought about writing fiction and all attempts to try my hand in this medium have been laughable. Although I have been with a story idea lately and while I have done my best to actively ignore it, I am yet to get it out of my head. I hold literature to a high standard and there is no way that I would be able to achieve that myself. I have written the idea down and if it continues to plague me then maybe I will not have a choice. I am not ready to try my hand at fiction, I still need to improve my craft.

The idea was sparked by reading Hecate and Her Dogs, but not related to the story. Paul Morand wrote such a beautiful and disturbing novella but I have a hard time separating the man from the book. It is the type of prose that you want to write down and admire. He was modernist writer along with his friend Proust and is considered a cult favourite among the artistic avant-garde. Sadly he was also a vocal anti-Semite and a Nazi collaborator. A question that has been asked a lot lately with people speaking out against sexual assault; how can we love the art, when the artist is such an asshole? It has become difficult to pick a movie nowadays. I do not want to forgive Paul Morand for his inhumane thoughts, nor call him a product of his time but I struggle to find where to draw the line. Ideally I never want to support people with problematic views but if I did this, I would quickly run out of classics to read; although I would quickly get my TBR under control.

My wife went for a new job that would require making a significant move. This has led me to spend a lot of time looking at my shelves, I mean, more so than usual. If we make this move there would be a serious need to cull my bookshelves. While I have toyed with this idea before, I never liked the idea of culling anything I have not read. I may not be interested in reading all the books at the moment but this could change. A major cull would force my hand. I want my shelves to be reflection of the books I am interested in reading and the ones that define my reading life. Eventually I hope to have a very small TBR pile but currently most of the books I own are unread.

I use to buy books frequently however my book buying habits have been through a considerable change. Currently my reading has been focused on the books I have received for my birthday or Christmas, like The Housekeeper and the Professor. However my time gazing at my shelves has reminded me of all the books I would love to revisit. I reread The Elegance of the Hedgehog as a result. It is hard to find the right balance between reading the unread and all the books I wish to dip back into; with a smaller TBR, this might be easier to manage. I am constantly being distracted by all the books I have and wish to read.

I keep checking the price on Matt McIntosh’s novel, theMystery.doc but it is still sitting at $45 Australian dollars. Part of me worries that this post-modern novel will never be published in paperback but do I have the patience to tackle a 1600 page book at the moment? Another book for my wishlist. I suspect that while reading Jacob’s Room is Full of Books I will find more books to add to my wishlist. It did inspire me to start writing monthly wrap ups again. I am actually trying to use her style of mixing my personal and reading life into one. However I plan to try and highlight my bookish thought process as well. I enjoyed the book but I preferred her other, Howard’s End is on the Landing. I am inspired to write this because of the book and I hope that it is just leading me back to writing more frequently. Also with a monthly post like this, the need to review everything I read will be eliminated. Let me know if you like this style.

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